Unique locations for screening films are now a feature of several international film festivals. But it’s hard to imagine a better place to view a documentary on a depopulated Palestinian village in Israel than the ruins of the village itself.
It’s also hard to imagine a location more likely to raise the hackles of Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev. Regev is already no fan of the festival that will be showing Michel Khleifi’s “Ma’aloul Celebrates Its Destruction” (1985). The screening is set for Saturday in what is now a Jewish National Fund pine forest 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from Nazareth, but it was a village of more than 600 Muslim and Christian Palestinians before 1948.
The event is the centerpiece of the fourth Zochrot 48mm Film Festival, which aims to “bring together cinematic works dealing with the Nakba and the return of Palestinian refugees.” Zochrot is an Israeli nongovernmental organization founded in 2002 to “promote awareness of the Palestinian Nakba, the 1948 Palestinian exodus,” seeking “to commemorate, witness, acknowledge, and repair.”
Since the festival’s inception, Regev – and her fellow Likudnik and predecessor as culture minister, Limor Livnat – have tried to derail it, threatening to cut state subsidies to Cinemateque art houses that host films in the event.
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The “Ma’aloul” showing is the first screening in the festival’s tribute to Khleifi, a trailblazer in bringing the Palestinian perspective to world screens.
His 1987 film “Wedding in Galilee” was the first feature by a Palestinian director to be screened at Cannes, where it won the International Critics’ Prize, and his 1995 effort “Tale of the Three Jewels” was the first feature ever filmed in the Gaza Strip. His documentaries were some of the first to capture how the events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have affected the lives of individual Palestinians, with an emphasis on women.
“He’s a pioneer that Israeli filmgoers need to see – not enough of them know about him. He’s truly one of the greatest Palestinian filmmakers,” said Natasha Dudinski, the festival’s artistic director who came up with the idea to show the film in Ma’aloul.
“Tours are a big part of Zochrot …. After I saw Michel’s film about Ma’aloul, I immediately thought we should tour the site as part of the festival, and I had the idea of screening it in the church, which is so impressive.”
The church is one of three buildings that remain standing in the village. During the 1947-49 War of Independence, the village’s Muslim and Christian residents came under fire by Israeli forces, and its residents were forced to leave. Most left for neighboring Nazareth after it was declared a closed military zone. They expected to return to their homes, but the village was bulldozed and declared state land under the Absentee Property Law – even though many of the residents hadn’t left the country and only lived a short distance away.
Khleifi’s film chronicles how Ma’aloul’s former residents would visit each year in the ‘50s and ‘60s, taking along their children and grandchildren. These excursions would take place on Israeli Independence Day – the one day the country’s military administration, which governed the Arab minority during Israel’s first two decades, let the villagers travel to Ma’aloul.
The film shows the abandoned church as a scarred shell covered with graffiti, and sometimes used as a cowshed. In the decades since, a nonprofit group has been created to renovate the church, and with the JNF’s permission the place has been rebuilt from the ruin seen in the film.
Much of the Marxist
Khleifi’s family wasn’t from Ma’aloul but he grew up with its former residents in Nazareth. Born in 1950, he moved to Belgium in 1970 to study film and settled there, returning often for extended stays while making his films.
“There were years when I was in Nazareth more than I was in Belgium,” Khleifi, now 67, told Haaretz by phone, adding that he thought it was “wonderful” and historic that he was being honored in Israel.
“It is a very, very important event. I think it’s late and overdue,” he said, adding that since he began making his films in the ‘80s, “I have been seen by Israelis as the enemy. But I think I’m a very gentle enemy …. I’m anti-violence and against militarism – I’ve never held a weapon. I’m against ethnocentrism – there’s still much of the Marxist in me.”
Either way, Khleifi’s films cast a harshly critical eye on Israel while humanizing Palestinians on the world stage.
His most acclaimed work, “Wedding in Galilee,” tells the story of a village mukhtar in 1948 who asks to hold his son’s wedding despite the military curfew. The authorities agree on condition that the military commander and his officers be invited as guests of honor – their incongruous presence becomes a metaphor for their presence on the land.
As The New York Times wrote in 1988, the film is “lyrical and extravagantly detailed when portraying the Palestinians. But because Mr. Khleifi turns simplistic and leaden whenever he points his camera at an Israeli, always viewed as the one-dimensional enemy, his often dazzling first feature is diminished by his insistently narrow vision.”
While declaring himself an artist, not a political activist, Khleifi has fought on the cultural front for official recognition of the Palestinian national identity. At Cannes he pushed back against the organizers’ reluctance to label his films as being submitted by “Palestine” – they ultimately agreed to call them coproductions of Belgium and Palestine.
Khleifi says his films depict the Palestinian struggle as a battle to recognize humanity and collective suffering while making sure individual lives and stories are never lost. “You can’t be free if others aren’t free,” he said. “That has always been my guiding principle …. And you can’t ever be just an Israeli or a Palestinian – your individuality has to be honored.”
Sense of urgency
When Khleifi began making films in the ‘80s, it was a radical act to show the humanity of Palestinians by telling their stories, and doing this through cinema was highly challenging. Looking back, he says it was “very, very” hard to get his earliest features made, particularly his Gaza feature, when “we were literally making our movie in the line of fire. People would look at us carrying around our film equipment like we were crazy.”
He says he was driven in those years by a sense of urgency that the world he was putting on film – like Ma’aloul – would soon no longer exist. In the ‘80s and 90s, he says, “I knew what I was filming was changing and would soon disappear .... I was right.”
He is thrilled that so many Palestinians have followed in his footsteps. At the 2018 Cannes festival there was a Palestine Film Institute pavilion offering 10 films – five features and five documentaries – to international distributors. The growth of Palestinian cinema he has witnessed “is a miracle … given the situation of the Palestinians …. That so many films are being made is a wonderful and amazing thing.”
Unlike the other films in the festival, the tribute to Khleifi featuring two of his films won’t take place at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque – even though it has resisted Regev’s threats and continues to host the Zochrot festival. Instead the screenings will be at the Left Bank Cine Club.
Khleifi resisted Cinemateque screenings for a reason that paradoxically parallels Regev’s objections to the place hosting the festival: They don’t want the films shown at a facility subsidized by the Israeli government.
Khleifi says he knows that in today’s atmosphere against normalization and amid the strength of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, many Palestinian filmmakers would refuse to take part in an event in Israel no matter where the film were screened.
“I can understand them and I don’t have a problem with it. But at my age, with my experience, I know who I am and I know exactly what I’m doing,” he said.
“Nobody can give me lessons on what I should do. I am happy and proud that until the end of my life I will remain an internationalist who always tries to look at the other the way I look at myself. People can say what they want.”
After living in Europe for nearly 50 years, he says, he understands the effect that the “terrible events” of the Holocaust had on the Jewish people, but he believes that “Zionist colonialism contradicts Jewish values” and “I don’t understand how the Jewish world isn’t rebelling against it.”
“I think that the two societies – Israeli and Palestinian – are traumatized …. We have to understand the trauma of the Israeli and Jewish society and the Israeli society needs to understand ours, but they don’t want to understand that we too live in trauma,” he said. “You can’t pit my trauma against your trauma. They shouldn’t be in competition.”
The conflict “is a terrible thing,” he added. “We live in the 21st century. How much longer should we continue like this?”
Dudinski recalled that when she first told Khleifi that the festival wanted to pay homage to his work, the law declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people had just been passed, and that while he was pleased to receive the invitation, he hesitated to accept it.
She said Khleifi was “very distressed and very depressed” over the law and said he was taking it very personally.
“He told me that he wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate” for his films about the lives and pain of Palestinians living in the Israeli state to be screened.
Her response: “This is exactly the kind of atmosphere in which they need to be shown.”